You are what you eat….you may be familiar with this phrase and it is quite true!  The ancient Thais seemed to know about this very well as it reflected in their traditional cuisine. I mentioned ‘traditional cuisine’ as nowadays the eating behaviors of the present generation have changed considerably. We eat more junk foods, more fast foods and forget our own traditional food.

Don’t be surprised if your Thai friend greets you with a question ”Have you eaten anything?”. They are really concerned about your empty stomach. The ancient Thai wisdom about food points to the balance between one’s body elements and the type of food one consumes. It is believed that the body is composed of four physical elements; earth, water, fire and wind, and there are specific foods that compliment certain body types, based on the dominance of these elements.

During the hot summer that usually lasts almost 4 months, we eat the foods that have the ‘cool’ element to keep the body in balance. Perhaps the most popular traditional dish during this period is “Khao Chae”.  The food is served as a set with a bowl of rice, a bowl of cooled water perfumed by Thai flowers’ petals, and several side dishes. Firstly, take a spoon of rice, followed by the water and the side dishes that consist of stuffed chili, fried sweet shrimp paste, shredded fish, and a few of local herbs.  In the old days when there was no ice maker or refrigerator, Thais kept the water cool in an earthenware container. Now we put crushed ice in the bowl of water. Not only had the process of cooking this menu that makes this set of food special, but also the way how to eat it.

The origin of this dish is believed to come from the ‘Mon’ – an ethnic group from the Mon State in Myanmar – that offers this dish to the monks on Songkran Day. It was later introduced to the royal Thai court during the reign of King Rama IV and became a popular summer dish among residents in the royal palace. The preparation of this dish was rather complicated and time consuming. Thus, it took a while before laypeople knew and learned about this food. The dish is also called “Khao Chae Chow Wang”, which indicates the origin of this food that was from the palace.

Khao Chae at Baan Prachachuen Restaurant

Many Thai restaurants  put Khao Chae as the star for the summer time menu to showcase their cooking skill. Each may have its own recipe, depending on the the royal members that they claim to be related to. One of my favorite places to get authentic “Khao Chae” is a small restaurant named “Baan Prachachuen”, which is located in a quiet alley near Prachachuen area. Even though they have this menu served all year round but the best time to have it is in April, which is the hottest month of the year in Thailand . It is the most suitable time to cool your stomach with this cool menu.

You may also get the simple Khao Chae in a local Thai style or a traditional Mon style in Pathumthani where the Mon community moved to the Thai kingdom in the 17th century.  Petchburi, a province near Hua Hin, is also famous for this dish.  Here, the dish was introduced to the local people when King Rama IV commissioned the construction of his summer palace “Phra Nakorn Khiri”. This style of Khao Chae is simple with fewer side dishes but quite delicious. I came across a small Khao Chae vendor in front of the Red Cross office in Petchburi town center. She told me that she has sold Khao Chae here since she was 14 (when I met her, she said she was 60). She sells Khao Chae all year round. So next time  you go to Cha Am or Hua Hin, drop by at her vendor and try one.

Khao Chae vendor in Pechburi